Burudi Nabwera’s How it Happened is one of the latest instalments of a growing archive of autobiographical writings that continue to emerge from public leaders of political, religious, and socio-economic slants. Published this year by Fasiri Communications, How it Happened points at a number of key developments in Kenya’s literary worldings that are a cause for celebration.
One, the post-colonial disquiet with the ideological dominance of main narratives is extended by the alternative facts offered from the perspectives of hitherto central players in the making of our shared histories, but who now occupy the political and national margins in the wake of totally transformed political and cultural landscapes.
In important ways, works such as How it Happened bring the Kenya National Archives, the National Assembly’s Hansard records, and Cabinet minutes to the public domain.
With these, we can peep into the intrigues of Kenya’s histories and politics at crucial moments.
Second, and perhaps more novel, is the way the hegemony of established publishing firms and other institutions of knowledge production are challenged by emerging publishing firms whose identifications of potentially interesting narratives contribute to the growth in volume of national narratives.
It is for these reasons that we must embrace works like How it Happened and mine them for all they are worth; the new revelations, rehashing of commonsensical truisms, their stylistic innovations, and the logics of individual authors’ decisions when they held public offices.
One of the interesting aspects of How it Happened relates to ways by which the Luhyia people of western Kenya — Nabwera prefers the term North Kavirondo — came to terms with the terror of European modernity, at least in its earlier incursion into a region.
Speaking about the colonialist use of dynamite to blow up rocks to give way for the railway, Nabwera shows how its Kiswahili equivalent, baruti, was appropriated and evolved to be Burudi, a name that he bears now, and which points at both the accommodative nature of his forebears and the socio-cultural impact of colonialism.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover this detail in Nabwera’s autobiography, because it reminded me of a conversation I once had with Prof Chris Wanjala in the Senior Common Room of the University of Nairobi.
Unknown to me then, Wanjala’s middle name, Lukorito, is also a corruption of the English word “recruit” — itself dense with historical significance as a reminder of the forceful conscription — of many Kenyans to fight in the Second World War.
Defying the initial terrors was Nabwera’s calling, in a circle of the first generation of Kenyans in Makerere and, together, carried on to public service and political leadership. His contemporaries, named in How it Happened, included scholars Bethwell Ogot, Thomas Odhiambo, Henry Muwanga Barlow, and Josphat Karanja. Mwai Kibaki would join them later.
It was while at Makerere that Nabwera’s political stirrings morphed into a discernible awareness of a skewed and race-based political structure, imposing on him little choice but to forge alliances with other politically conscious figures including Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, whom he had met while at Maseno School, Masinde Muliro, and WWW Awori.
These, among others, would be Nabwera’s comrades in the then nascent political terrain that they would go on to dominate from the early 1960s to the 1990s, only breaking their political involvements to pursue higher education. For Nabwera, who later went to London School of Economics to study sociology — awareness of political disadvantages went parallel with alertness for educational and economic opportunities.
This is probably what led him to the path of a successful academic career, a stint in the diplomatic service when he was appointed, in 1963, as the first Kenyan African ambassador to the United States and Permanent Representative to the UN, and an illustrious political career, all spanning a staggering 55 years of public service to his country.
How it Happened is written with a highly localised audience in mind, given that the first parts of the work densely delve into the intimate details of Luhyia cultures.
But it is also a work that shows how an otherwise disadvantaged individual — Nabwera lost his mother when he was 10 — can, by dint of personal striving, wriggle his way to the high table of academic, political, and material elitism.
It is written, stylistically, in shimmering elegance of simple diction, with a near-linear plot that suggests a straightforward author. It has moments of deep introspection where past mistakes are acknowledged and regretted, making the work the more credible and educative. Whether this is because How it Happened is an aided autobiography — written with Masinde Kusimba — or not is hard to tell, but the finished product is worth your while.
It was Matthew Arnold who stated that in great creative writing, the power of the (wo)man must concur with the power of the moment. True.
But the truth in this claim is more so in the political lives of individuals who, like Burudi Nabwera, happened to be focused and strategic at historical moments when their focus and strategy could possibly yield all the ingredients that go into the making of a successful life.
The writer teaches Literature at the University of Nairobi